That’s Not Fair!

For the week of July 2, 2022 / 3 Tammuz 5782

Message info over children running a race

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22
Revised version of message originally posted the week of June 16, 2018 / 3 Tammuz 5778

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

I want share with you about time I was traumatized – maybe I should say “triggered” – about four years ago. My wife, our two youngest children, and I along with several other homeschooling families participated in an annual track and field day. We had been homeschoolers for a long time, beginning with our youngest child (we have ten in all) in the mid-1980s. Having lived in different parts of four of Canada’s largest cities and being committed to tailoring each child’s schooling as best we could to their individual needs and abilities, our education experience has been quite varied. From time to time we have been involved in formal and informal co-ops, where we would connect with other families to provide subjects and/or activities to complement what we were doing at home. That particular school year, we enrolled our two youngest (the only children still living at home at the time) in a once-a-week formal co-op. For many years, the co-op parents put on an annual field day.

That’s all to say that it had been a long time since I have attended, not to mention been involved, in such an event. I remember similar field days from my own public-school years. Just like this one, they tend to be a mix of classic track events, such as running races of various distances, standing and running long jumps, etc. as well as the more fun variety, such as the three-legged race. It was a most pleasant day for the most part, except for what triggered me.

Before I get to the truly painful part, I was first taken aback by the giving of ribbons for first through fifth place. When did they add fourth and fifth place? Will this generation be lobbying the International Olympic Committee for more medal categories? I wonder what they would be made of? Would you believe in 2012 a man from England took it upon himself to have pewter medals made and sent to fourth place finishers of the Summer Games in London? But my relatively minor state of shock over extending winning ribbons beyond third place didn’t prepare me for the BIG TRIGGER. As I was watching one of the races of the younger children (six-year-olds, perhaps), it was so obvious that some children were genetically superior than the others. It wasn’t even close as this one child (note my purposeful gender-neutral language) ran with superhero speed (comparatively speaking).

I stood there with dropped jaw. It was incredulous that well-meaning parents (as I assume these were) would allow such disparity of ability to be flaunted before impressionable minors. This child (as were a few others) were clearly physically privileged. No wonder they had ribbons for fourth and fifth places. My daughter’s group only had five competitors, so that was fine, but others had more. I don’t know how the ribbon-less children were able to show their faces in public after such a shameful display of inequality. Speak of unfair!

Korah and company who challenged Moses in this week’s parsha understood this and they were even more irate as I was (whether I really was traumatized or not is up to debate. You decide if I am being satirical or still bitter over being such a loser at athletic events myself). I know the parallel isn’t exact. The inequality demonstrated at the field day had to do with athletic prowess, while Korah was angry over what he perceived to be prejudicial preference. Yet I don’t think the resentment principle at work in these two contexts are that different, especially when you take God into account.

Korah, like Moses, was of the tribe of Levi. They were appointed by God to serve the priesthood, while God gave the priesthood itself to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants. Being specially set aside by God to be Levites was not good enough for Korah as he wanted the priesthood as well. While he accused Moses of favoritism, in reality his resentment was targeted at God.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone gets to be a priest. Nor is everyone graced with the same abilities. Not everyone is born into the same life situation. Not everyone experiences the same challenges and/or opportunities. Not everyone handles their challenges and opportunities the same way. Life’s not fair.

What are we to do about it? Hand out ribbons for tenth place? Don’t hand out ribbons at all? Don’t have competitions? Some may think so, especially if equality of outcome is to be the highest value.

But is that what we want, really? More importantly, is that what God wants? With all the attention given to diversity in our day, do we know how to truly celebrate actual diversity? We are all so different. And to a great extent, it’s by God’s design. It may not be fair, but it is only when we commit ourselves to utilizing our God-given differences to their maximum potential, free of resentment, that each and every one of us can discover what we were created for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Fully Engaged

For the week of June 25, 2022 / 26 Sivan 5782

Message info superimposed on an image of a man striving to climb a mountain

Sh’lach L’kha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 13:1-2)

When God delivered the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt it was with the stated goal of bringing them into the land he promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact, we could say that God staked his life on it (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:12-21). As a result, Israel could count on acquiring the land. Still, God directed Moses to send twelve men to check out the land prior to the nation going in. I imagine he could have just told them to take the land sight unseen, but he didn’t.

As it turned out, while the land was as good as expected, ten of the twelve men were greatly intimidated by the strong people and fortified cities that they had seen. They believed that Israel would not succeed at this venture. Two of the twelve, Joshua and Caleb, disagreed, asserting that God would help them. Tragically, the fearful ones won over the nation to the extent that they were ready to choose a new leader and return to Egypt. It would be another thirty-eight years before Israel would get another opportunity to enter the land. That time too, scouts were sent in first.

So, why didn’t God just send the people in? It wouldn’t have been the first time that they had to face a seemingly impossible challenge. Perhaps it’s necessary in certain situations to grasp the nature of the challenge before facing it. Obviously, succeeding at such a venture required a level of sustained trust in God. It wasn’t as if God was expecting them to think of this as a nothing. The difficulty was not a concoction of their imaginations. At the same time, after all the people had gone through from the ten plagues, the Red Sea, and all that happened in the wilderness, God expected the people to be ready to trust him amid this great challenge. But they didn’t.

People often say things like, “But if God knew this would happen, why put them through it?” Some may attempt to resolve this by claiming that it had to happen. This is a way of saying that everything worked out according to plan, that at this point of Israel’s development they, of course, would behave this way. I find this reasoning completely unhelpful. What could be learned by such a “solution”? To simply accept what will be will be? I don’t think so.

There’s something far deeper going on here. God has no interest in simply commanding his people as if we are mindless puppets. True faith is not blind. Trusting in God requires keen understanding of life’s challenges. But not in isolation. We need to see all of life within the context of God’s love, power, and faithfulness to his people. God wanted the people to know exactly what they were going to be up against. That they thought they were helpless against this great challenge exposes how shallow their understanding of God was despite all he had done for them.

God calls people into an intelligent engagement of life. Designed to be his representatives on earth, we humans are to reflect who he is to the world: his wisdom, his goodness, his righteousness, and so on. This requires an understanding of the world from God’s perspective. We do this by learning his Word and developing the skill to apply it to every area of life. This also requires weighing truth and discerning appropriate solutions to the myriads of problems we face. We must learn from our own experience and the experiences of others. We need to be responsible for our lives, each of us fulfilling whatever God has given us to do.

None of this is easy. But we were never promised easy. To be fully human is to be fully engaged in life as God so directs. He never intended for us to float through life via some sort of detached spiritual emptiness. Far from it. We have been made to fully engage life as he so directs.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Full Disclosure

For the week of June 18, 2022 / 19 Sivan 5782

Message info over a person holding a book emanating light

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” And Aaron did so: he set up its lamps in front of the lampstand, as the LORD commanded Moses. (B’midbar/Numbers 8:1-3)

When I read certain parts of the Bible, in particular the Torah, the books of Moses, I wonder sometimes, what’s that doing there? Please don’t get me wrong. If God deems it to be part of his inspired written Word, I take no issue with it. It’s God’s Word after all, not mine. But why do I need to know this or that? All these instructions for the cohanim (English: priests), for example. They seem to be essential for a strict subset of the people of Israel. But what benefit does it and other such portions have to the average Joe or Joan?

I am aware that there is more to many of these passages than what might be obvious at first glance. At the same time, I can be skeptical of certain interpretations that may be doing nothing more than making stuff up. Take the verses I quoted at the beginning. It would be easy to lock on to the concept of light and run with it. Moses’ brother Aaron was given instructions to set up lamps inside the first of two highly restricted rooms contained within the mishkan (English: tabernacle). As far as we can tell, the purpose of the lamps was nothing more than practical: to provide light inside an otherwise completely dark environment. There’s nothing I know of in or around the passage to suggest otherwise. That said, if someone wants to use a passage like this to talk about how God is metaphorically our light in dark places – light signifying his knowledge that we need in order to live effective, godly, and productive lives – that’s great. But do we need this passage to know that? Aaron and his descendants needed it, of course. But what about the rest of us? Do we?

Yes we do. While perhaps there is a deeper meaning in such passages, there is something wonderful going on here. The core priestly function of ancient Israel was hidden from view. Every day, cohanim would enter the first room (the Holy Place) to tend the lamps, keep the incense burning, and replace the sacred loaves of bread. They would do this completely hidden away from view. Only select cohanim would ever get to see these unique furnishings and activities. Similarly, only one person, the Cohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest), would go into the second of the two rooms, the Holy of Holies, and ritually cleanse the Ark of the Covenant. And that happened only once each year. No one else would see it, but how do we know that? We know, because it’s explicitly described in Scripture.

To be honest, I don’t have extensive knowledge about other religions of the ancient Near East, but it seems to me that they were full of mystery. The inner workings of priests and such were for the priests alone. There seemed be a high value among both the religious leadership and their followers regarding mystery. Being clued out over what was really going on in the inner sanctum evoked a certain kind of awe that people valued.

It seems that’s still true today. Having a sense that the experts, be they religious or otherwise, possess information not accessible to the common person fuels a respect for them that allows us to trust their directions. It’s as if the more we don’t know, the more comfortable we feel entrusting our lives to them.

But that’s not God’s way. The God of the Bible is a god of disclosure. While the separateness of the innerworkings of the Mishkan evokes a sense of holiness – for a purpose I won’t delve into here – it’s not a secret. The Scriptures freely inform the people what’s going on beyond their view.

I have encountered Bible teachers who reference hard-to-understand passages as mysteries as if God wants us to simply accept all sorts of concepts just because we are told to. But that’s not the Bible’s use of the word “mystery.” In the New Covenant Writings, Paul commonly uses the word mystery to refer to something that was unknown in the past but has been made known in the present. It is not used to shut down questions and concerns about things that are hard to understand.

God delights in revealing himself and his ways to his people. While there are things beyond human understanding, God is not hiding in order to manipulate us in any way. Far from it! He longs to make himself known to us. If we find ourselves in the dark, it is only because we have not been willing to come into God’s light.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version



For the week of June 11, 2022 / 12 Sivan 5782
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25
Originally posted the week of June 17, 2000 / 14 Sivan 5760 (revised)

Message info over a man with an inquisitive facial expression

But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children. (B’midbar/Numbers 5:28)

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This verse is taken from an unusual passage that prescribes a test for marital unfaithfulness found in B’midbar/Numbers 5:11-31. If a husband suspected his wife of unfaithfulness, she was to be brought before the cohen (English: priest). The cohen would then perform a ritual in which the woman drinks a concoction made from holy water, floor dust, and ink. If she developed an adverse reaction to the concoction in her internal organs, then her husband’s suspicions would be confirmed, and she would be guilty. Otherwise, her husband’s suspicions would be declared unfounded; case closed.

At first glance you may think that this is of the likes of magic potions and incantations. You may also be disturbed by how a woman apparently could be held in such suspicion, dragged before a religious court, and forced to drink something so disgusting.

But that’s not what is going on here. The Torah shows us what God thinks of suspicion. I wonder how many women (and men for that matter) have been ostracized and worse because their spouse or someone else was suspicious of them. How many wrongs have been done to people based on someone’s feelings rather than based upon facts?

The Torah says elsewhere: “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 19:15). Suspicion therefore is never enough to convict someone. But if that is the case, then why the need of this ritual at all? If a husband has no proof, then we might think the issue should not even be allowed to be raised.

But preventing his accusation would not likely have alleviated the situation. The prescribed ritual forces the husband to deal with his suspicion. While he may or may not do his best to lay aside his feelings, the ritual brings the matter into the open where it can be dealt with. As the couple, with the cohen’s help, deals with the situation, it will be resolved one way or another. Both the husband and the wife will be confronted with the truth.

How many times do we harbor suspicion, not just toward our spouses, but others with whom we have close relationships? Suspicion eats away at our hearts. Unless we deal with it, we will find ourselves more and more distant from the very people we need to be closest to.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a way to bring these things out into the open? If our suspicions are justified, then we can deal with the wrongs, if not, then we can forget about them and get on with our lives.

An essential dynamic at play here is that God is directly involved. There was nothing about the concoction itself that would have caused the predicted results. Somehow God himself would cause the reaction to occur if the woman was truly guilty.

So, we too can come before God and ask him to deal with our suspicions. But we need to be willing to confront them honestly and openly. Note how a third party was made to be part of the process. This allowed the issue to move outside of the immediate relationship where it could have festered due to keeping it hidden. At the same time, the issue was not to take into the public realm, where reputations could easily be damaged.

So let us deal with our suspicions and bring them into the open, where God can address them. Then when he does, we can either rectify the wrongs or forget about them for good.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version